London’s new transport commissioner today vowed to get commuters back on the Tube and buses, saying it was vital for the city’s future prosperity.
Andy Byford said his two priorities for his first two years in charge were getting Transport for London back on an even keel financially - by restoring passenger numbers to pre-Covid levels - and getting Crossrail open.
Passenger numbers fell by about 90 per cent during lockdown, creating a £3.2 billion hole in TfL’s finances.
Mr Byford said: “[This is] clearly an unsustainable situation financially. For the economic wellbeing of TfL, but also of the city, we have got to get people back onto public transport, and I am determined that we will do that.”
The Tube would be made “cleaner than it’s ever been” to minimise the risk of coronavirus. Patrols will enforce mask-wearing on buses and as many services as possible will be run to help passengers socially distance.
Mr Byford, 54, said: “I think the way we do it is carefully, progressively, rebuilding people’s confidence that public transit is clean, that it is safe to travel on, that it’s the best way of getting around the city.
“What we do not want is people to migrate to cars. If we end up with a car-led recovery, we will just end up with gridlock.”
Asked if Crossrail would finally open next summer, two-and-a-half years late, Mr Byford said: “I’m still reviewing the programme. I’m in discussions with the Crossrail board, and I’m waiting to get their analysis of what impact Covid has had before I can answer that question.
“What I can say is that I have come here determined to get Crossrail finished... I will take a very hands-on approach.”
Other projects – which he declined to name - would have to wait due to the financial crisis. An A&E-style “triage” system is being used to decide which are prioritised.
“Any project that is virtually complete, any project to which we are contractually committed, safety-related programmes, programmes that have a compelling business case – those are the ones that would take first priority,” he said.
Mr Byford said being appointed TfL commissioner was “a real pinnacle of my career”. He began work as a station foreman on the Tube in 1989, his father worked for London Transport and his grandfather drove a London bus for 40 years, including during the Blitz.
He will earn £335,000 a year plus a bonus worth up to half his salary and will use the Tube and buses to get around. “You can see for yourself how clean it is, how punctual it is,” he said.
“I have never owned a car in my life. I do not have a driver’s licence. I have failed my driving test twice. That is my claim to shame.
“I walk a lot. I don’t really cycle – I can cycle, but I don’t have a bike at the moment.”
He wants to rebuild morale at TfL, “which has taken a knock” with 7,000 of its 25,000 staff on furlough.
He was headhunted for the TfL job after resigning in January as head of New York City Transit Authority.
He was interviewed in person by Mr Khan, who then called him to offer him the job. “I accepted immediately,” he said.
“I thought we warmed to each other straight away. I recognised in him someone that shared my passion for transport, someone that had a vision, and I obviously gave him confidence that I know what I’m talking about and I’m determined to do a great job.”
In New York, he became known as “Train Daddy” after an unknown transport fan, impressed by Mr Byford’s attempts to improve the system, put up stickers in Brooklyn. “It caught on and I used to get people come up to me in the street in New York and say [adopts accent], ‘Hey, Train Daddy, how ya doin?’”
He promised to be equally visible in London. “You cannot run a transport system from a desk,” he said. “I have already said to the staff ‘you will see a lot of me on the system’.
“I also want the customers to see me, not to garner some sort of Train Daddy following… but I do believe that the travelling public of London have a right to know who the commissioner is because, at the end of the day, they pay my wages.”